I grew up in Washington, D.C., the daughter of a well-known journalist, Stewart Alsop. This meant I knew firsthand the ups and downs of a writer’s life. My clearest memory of my father working is the distant pounding of typewriter keys, the first sound I heard when I opened the kitchen door after a day at school. My father used an old Underwood typewriter and he was a “hunt and peck” typist. To the ears of a child, the unevenness of his stroke made what was actually a sedentary job sound dangerous and indispensable through that closed study door. In my imagination, he was the classic reporter in a film noir movie, always rushing against a deadline, typing with the equivalent of a loaded gun at his temple, and if his words were good enough, they might be able to save the world.
My father’s office wasn’t hidden but it was forbidden. Nothing that happened to me or to my five brothers was important enough to disturb his concentration. With his older brother as partner, the two of them hammered out three columns a week for a major newspaper syndicate, and we children knew that his office was completely off bounds. Occasionally, the door would open abruptly, and my father would step over our bodies playing in the hallway, march twice around the living room ignoring my mother on the phone and stride back into his office, slamming the door behind him. If that stroll through the house broke the logjam in his brain, it wasn’t long before we would hear the typewriter keys starting up again.
My brothers and I grew up in a house filled with secrets, both personal and professional, so we became skilled eavesdroppers. Children know instinctively when they are being kept in the dark and they find their own ways to unlock the closed doors. My parents regularly entertained the power brokers of Washington, so we children hid in a crawl space under the liquor closet to listen to conversations over the clink of bottles or we lurked in the hallway when my father was conducting an interview. Once, under the guidance of my oldest brother, a tech wizard, we recorded one of my parents’ dinner parties. My way of exploring the unspoken family mysteries was to keep my own secret journal. Writing down my fears and discoveries and observations became a lifelong habit.
I majored in writing at Sarah Lawrence College, took a summer job working for a small newspaper in western Massachusetts and spent time as an assistant editor in the children’s book department at Harper and Row Publishers. When I quit in order to write full-time, my own children fed me ideas and after fifteen years of publishing picture books for children and novels for teenagers, I finally decided I was grown up enough to write a novel for adults.
Setting often drives my fiction so that now when I think about my grandmother’s house in Connecticut, I don’t remember the real house so much as the one I described in my novel, In My Mother’s House. I don’t remember the actual people who lived there as clearly as I do the characters I created and placed in that house so that they could work out the daily troubles of their lives. Writing a novel often means that you mourn the death of what truly was, at the same time that you welcome the birth of what might have been.
As Eudora Welty said, “You need to tell the lies of fiction to get to the truth of human nature.” I have always cared more about the truth of human nature than I have about getting each and every fact exactly right which is why it has taken me so long to attempt a memoir.
Finally, after publishing over fifty works of fiction for both adults and children (under the name Elizabeth Winthrop), I decided to tell my mother’s story in the form of a memoir. My father wrote his own memoir (Stay of Execution) and books and plays have been written about him and Joseph Alsop, his famous older brother. But nobody ever asked my mother about her life. A decoding agent in World War II London, this pregnant British war bride crossed the North Atlantic at the age of 18 in a convoy dodging U-boats in December of 1944. To the outside world, she appeared to step easily into the role of dutiful wife and devoted Catholic mother, but in truth, she grew daily more frustrated at the confines of her life in 1950s America. Years later as she slipped away into dementia, I was determined to get her story down while she could tell it. In the drawn-out process of writing Daughter of Spies, I learned that the memories that stuck with me and with her were the ones that helped me best get at the truth of human nature.
You can find out more about me at www.elizabethwinthropalsop.com and @EWinthropAlsop. Regal House is proud to be publishing Elizabeth’s memoir, Daughter of Spies, Wartime Secrets, Family Lies in Fall of 2022